Ellis Peters: A Morbid Taste for Bones

A Morbid Taste for Bones
Ellis Peters
First published in the UK 1977, Macmillan London Ltd
This edition 2007, Sphere
ISBN: 9780751517491
250 pages
Score 3/5

I read a post a while ago about TV adaptations influencing how you picture a character, and for me Brother Cadfael is very definitely Derek Jacobi, even though the monk is a bit more rugged in Peters’ descriptions.

‘The thickset fellow who rolls from one leg to the other like a sailor.’

Cadfael is an elderly (for the twelfth century) Benedictine who came to the monastic life only after careers as a crusader and sailor in the Holy Land. He now finds contentment in a quiet life tending the herbarium at Shrewsbury Abbey, not far from his native Wales.

Derek Jacobi in the 1994-98 TV adaptation of the Cadfael novels

Not too quiet, however. Cadfael’s life experience makes him perceptive about goings-on inside and beyond the walls of the Abbey, and his skills as a herbalist and growing reputation as a solver of crimes give him plenty of opportunities to involve himself in mysteries.

A Morbid Taste for Bones is Cadfael’s first outing. It is 1137, and the ambitious Prior Robert has been scouring Wales for a suitable saint to provide a relic for the Abbey, currently lacking any such tourist attraction. He finds the ideal candidate in neglected Saint Winifred, held in little account by the people of her native Rhos.

Robert leads an expedition to secure Winifred’s remains, accompanied by the sycophantic Brother Jerome and visionary Brother Columbanus. Cadfael and his assistant Brother John tag along as interpreter and skivvy, respectively.

In Rhos they find the locals less willing than they expected to surrender their saint. Opposition is led by the pugnacious and voluble local nobleman Rhisiart, and the Benedictines and Welsh are soon locked in an increasingly ill-tempered stalemate. In the course of the negotiations, Cadfael finds himself increasingly dubious about his fellow monks’ motives and sympathetic to his countrymen.

Soon enough, a single bloody act of violence has disturbed the peace of Rhos and guilt is fixed on the most obvious culprit. Cadfael, with a foot in both camps, feels duty-bound to solve the murder. Along the way he also sorts out the love lives of two young couples.

The investigation is disappointing. There is a little bit of medieval CSI as Cadfael examines a victim’s body for clues, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere, and the solution is revealed by a trope that must have been old in 1137. And the same trick is repeated twice in the course of the book!

On the plus side, the setting is nicely realised. The internal politics of the Abbey are painted very vividly, and Peters clearly enjoyed depicting the clash of cultures between the down-to-earth yet passionate Welsh and the ambitions and schemes of the largely Norman monks. The Welsh countryside is beautifully written.

A Morbid Taste for Bones is a fun read and a solid piece of history-mystery, but not perhaps particularly memorable. I’ve read a few Cadfaels over the years and they tend to merge into one. I like the series as a whole without being able to name any particular book as the best.

Final destination: Back to the library

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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4 Responses to Ellis Peters: A Morbid Taste for Bones

  1. Rich – I agree completely that Peters was highly skilled at depicting both the times and physical setting within which the stories take place. I like the internal politics of the abbey too. I think it’s those things that really keep my attention in these novels.

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  2. Sarah says:

    I like this book although I do agree that many of the Cadfaels merge into one after a while. This is a nice view of the ‘Welsh’ side of Cadfael which we don’t always get to see and certainly not in the TV series.

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  3. Pingback: Ellis Peters: The Leper of Saint Giles | Past Offences

  4. Pingback: Pick of the month: August 2012 | Past Offences

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